Sunday, December 27, 2009

Miles to go

now finished: Up in the Air by Walter Kirn

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Up in the Air. Much like the previous book I read, about John Quincy Adams, boy do I relate to the main character! I never thought I would find myself so similar to two men as I have in reading these last two books.

Ryan Bingham flies - a lot. He is more comfortable in airports and jetting from place to place than he is in conventional things like homes and families. I understand Ryan. I take it that some people don't?

In the grand scheme of things, I am so not a frequent flyer. Nor am I ever likely to be an elite member of any given airline's club: I tend to buy tickets based mostly on price, my miles are spread across a few airlines, and I can count the number of trips I've taken by redeeming miles on one hand. But maybe being a flyer is also state of mind. I tend to be pretty zen about the whole flying thing. And I most certainly do not hate the airlines. Au contraire. I hate the passengers who complain about them.

People get really impatient when they fly, but I think they are impatient about all the wrong things. They are ready to tear the airline apart if there's a ten-minute flight delay, but they have no concept of how to get their stupid bags out of the overhead bin and get off the plane in an efficient fashion. They are all convinced that The Airline is going to lose their luggage, and for some reason it is okay to complain about this theoretical possibility, but they don't like it if I complain about an actuality, such as their child screaming or kicking the back of my seat.

It would probably behoove me to get elite status on some airline, and to get some first-class upgrades. I haven't really been in a position where I've flown more than a few times a year for the last few years, so it's kind of a non-issue. But I would love nothing more than a job that has me flying around all the time. Like Ryan Bingham's. He's comfortable and happy in Airworld. I relate.

Other things I like about the book are 1)that it has an easy familiarity with U.S. geography, which you would think any American has but boy would you be mistaken and 2)it has this whole snarky observation-of-Mormons/Utah thing going on throughout which I found awesome.

The movie, which is currently playing and getting much Oscar buzz, is quite different from the book, but also good. I think if you like one you will like the other, but they are different.

One of the most interesting things about Up in the Air is that it was published around July 2001. Meaning, then September 11 happened, forever altering flying as we know it and probably wrecking the chances of Kirn's whimsical Airworld having mass appeal at that time. That's a bummer for Kirn. I hope the release of the film this year inspires lots of us to pick up the book -- a light read, but with a lot of cleverness tucked in between the lines.

Friday, December 25, 2009


now finished: John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel

It is hard to sum up my feelings about my most recent presidential bio subject, John Quincy Adams, aka my new best friend. I wonder if this is why people read biographies? That eventually, if you read enough biographies, you are bound to come across your doppelganger and in reading an exhaustive account of his/her life, come to a greater understanding of yourself?

I seriously had to stop counting the ways I am similar to JQA -- it was distracting me from my reading. Professional dilemma, temperament, outlook. Let's see: JQA loved travelling internationally and was interested in being a diplomat, but when he got the job offer his first worry was whether the job would leave enough time for reading literature. (Hello.) He really just wanted to be a poet and read things and then think about them, but he was smart so he made it through law school, even though his heart was never, ever into being a lawyer. He kept a diary, narrating and reflecting on daily events for years. He was moody and held people, including himself, to really high standards.

"Resolved to be his own man, Adams went out of his way to demonstrate how individualistic he planned to be. From his first moments in the Senate, he behaved in a manner that sometimes amused his colleagues, frequently baffled them, and occasionally angered a number..." - p.144

He did not like the two political parties and insisted that all his actions in government came from a place of personal integrity, not blind loyalty to a party. He put off getting married and was averse to the dating scene during his college days. Of course: it was a waste of time when he could be reading! He was forever starting projects but not necessarily keeping up with them; he was just interested in so many things. Among these things were languages, of which he learned several.

He was actually quite good at his job, maybe better than his poetry, although he did write some. Oh yeah, and fashion! He took a lot of flak about his clothes, some of it from his mother, Abigail. He just didn't put that much effort into refining his dress, looking nice, or being stylish. This was a problem. When he was up for election to anything, he didn't like to talk about it or to campaign:

"The prospect of a seat in the House had such portent that Adams chose for the moment not to discuss it even in his diary. He kept mostly quiet on the matter until after he won the election." -p. 335

While quite young, he travelled by himself, happily. He came to love astronomy when he started learning about it. He sometimes suffered from melancholy. He quoted Voltaire.

Perhaps one of the greatest summings up was about some tree-planting he was doing against conventional wisdom at the family's Massachusetts house:

"It left him as a minority of one seeking to prove the universe wrong -- a position JQA found quite comfortable." - p. 350

Nagel writes the book drawing heavily on JQA's lifelong diary to structure the story. I think Nagel misses the point sometimes. He has researched the Adams family so widely that I think the breadth of his knowledge makes him miss some of JQA's depth. Nagel doesn't seem to understand that a diary is a place for reflection, reconsideration, rumination, and elaborate plans. It is a place where certain things will be discussed and others ignored, not necessarily in the same proportion that attention is given to them in the writer's daily life. Nagel goes so far as to say JQA was never content but I think he is wrong. I think Nagel just can't relate to JQA, doesn't really "get' him. So how could Nagel come to accurate conclusions?

It's not my favorite biography in terms of being a favorite work, but I loved the experience of reading it, and discovering my double in the form of the sixth president of the United States.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Holiday swap thanks

This year I participated in the Book Bloggers holiday Swap, a fun Secret Santa gift exchange among book bloggers. (And there are many of us, by the way, for those of you who lurk outside the book blogging world.)

I received two hardcovers(!) from my thoughtful Santa swapper: Amigoland by Oscar Casares and Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. These have both been on my to-read list for a while, and I am grateful for the gift. Of course, I will post my thoughts here when I read them, which I predict will be in mid-2010. What a fun thing this holiday book swap was.

Thank you, Brittany!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

When E.M. Forster talks...

now finished: Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster
now reading: John Quincy Adams: A Private Life, A Public Life by Paul. C. Nagel

E.M. Forster: I swoon. When I first read him two years ago, I was pleasantly surprised at the sheer awesomeness of his writing in A Passage to India. I've owned a copy of his Aspects of the Novel for years, but just got around to reading it after letting it stare accusingly at me from my shelf of books-on-writing that I somehow keep ignoring while I waste time going to law school, etc. Not only was it high time I read his classic on what a novel is, but it was also time to commence my A-to-Z Literary Blog Project sequel, in which I shall read a second book from my A-to-Z top half, the thirteen authors I liked best. So, this was my second Forster.

He's just so freakin' smart. And literary. And witty, and perceptive. He puts things so well, even when he's just talking about literature and not writing it. He is a true master. I would so love to hear from people who met him or heard him speak before he died. You must be out there - share your thoughts with me! I find everything he says so impressive. Reading Aspects of the Novel, however, I also found myself in fits of jealousy as he analyzed this or that novel; I have a four-page list of reading suggestions now, thanks to him. My Goodreads "to-read" shelf runneth over.

But he did talk about books I have read also. You know, your Wuthering Heights, your Great Expectaions, and perhaps most exciting, War and Peace. E.M. Forster sings its praises, good on him. He's super matter-of-fact about it being marvelous. He even comes out and says that foreign novelists are basically better than English novelists, and he calls Tolstoy courageous and divine. As for The Book in particular, he offers this:

"Then why is War and Peace not depressing? Probably because it has extended over space as well as over time, and the sense of space until it terrifies us is exhilarating, and leaves behind it an effect like music. After one has read War and Peace for a while, great chords begin to sound, and we cannot say exactly what has struck them." -- p. 39

Soooo good. He concludes that the development of novels may well be a reflection of the development of humanity. I want to hang out with E.M. and talk about novels over a few beers. But he gets to do most of the talking.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Last Revolutionary Dude

now finished:
James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity by Harry Ammon
Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster
now reading:
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel

James Monroe took a lot of flak, but he was actually quite awesome. He had integrity and just honest-to-god wanted to do the right things to make this fledgling union into - well, an awesome union! As a diplomat and in all the other positions he held he worked really hard, but the partisan winds of politics weren't always blowing in his favor. This was never more true than during his presidential administration: he was the last sure-thing destined-to-be-president dude from the Revolutionary generation, and pretty much his entire cabinet plus an enemy or two in Congress wanted to be the first of the younger generation to be elected, in 1824. So they spent the whole time jockeying for position and stirring up shite, while Monroe remained unfailingly neutral but still got blamed for lots of dumb stuff.

This book gave me such a greater understanding of him. He wasn't as inherently brilliant as his buddies Madison and Jefferson, but he excelled at being a pragmatic problem solver, which they did not. And he did a lot of things well. He completely and totally saved Madison's skin during the War of 1812, for example. Another likable president who actually did quite a bit to save the day.

Ammon's book is not my favorite of the bios I've been reading; it's a little slow and convoluted at times. But even when I got bogged down, I felt bad disliking the book at all because I so much respect Ammon and other historian/biographers who have combed through pages and pages and volumes and volumes of material for, like, fifteen years to write a well-researched book. Can you imagine working on a book for fifteen years? Is there anything to which I have devoted fifteen years? Besides, say, watching baseball, or Oscar-nominated films. (Which, speaking of, it's totally awards season; check out my ramblings on my "front page" blog.)

Monroe also tried, often, to do the right thing for Native Americans and slaves. Not that he was sure what the right thing was, but he at least tried to solve those huge problems that are such a blemish on the reputations of him and his crew. Besides his attempts to get Liberia going (you know - Monrovia and stuff), he tried to stop the execution of slaves who were arrested after plotting an uprising. It was all such a mess, and I can't imagine what good anyone I know today would have done about slavery if they had lived at that time, despite how easy it is to criticize with hindsight.

I relate to Monroe a lot because he was a little self-critical but also it upset him terribly when people didn't understand him, or misjudged him or his motivations. I think the people around him might have been oblivious to how much he cared, while they were basically willing to be shallow. All in all, I am impressed by my boy Monroe. Except for the part where he enjoyed/was good at practicing law. Yuck. But I do like that initially he, as with all the others, didn't know what he should do with his life.

Next up? My new BFF JQA!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Shutter to Think

now finished:
This Too Is Diplomacy by Dorothy Irving
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
now reading:
James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity by Harry Ammon

Yes, I have been reading, even though I have not been blogging. Shame on me. After So Big, I finished This Too Is Diplomacy and Shutter Island, before plunging into another giant president biography -- Monroe, now -- which has consumed my last two weeks or so.

This Too is Diplomacy is something I had partially read before, in raw form, because I was in a writing group with the author, Dorothy Irving. That was my writing group in Boston, right before I went to Korea. I rejoined up with them off and on post-Korea as well, when I happened to be in Boston, but by that time Dorothy had pretty much finished her book and was working on publishing it. The book is about the life she led with her husband and their kids as hubby worked in the Foreign Service through the 1960s and 1970s. Obviously, it was interesting to me even before law school as she read excerpts to us, and now that I have my eyes on the Foreign Service it is even more interesting. Or I guess, interesting in different ways. Anyway, this was the first time I had read the whole thing straight through. If any of you are curious about what life in the foreign service is like, give it a whirl!

As for Shutter Island, it left me confused. I hate it when that happens. Not too long ago Alafair Burke blogged about why people don't like to read mysteries. At the time my gut response was that it's overwhelming for non-mystery readers to listen to the mystery genre enthusiasts; all those die-hards seem to have breathlessly read everything by so-and-so, and you feel sort of looked-down-on if you are a mere dabbler, so you just don't even bother trying to conquer the mystery section. But reading Shutter Island reminded me of another reason that I as a dabbler sometimes feel lesser than those oh-my-I've-read-all-of-her-books people. Because sometimes I straight up don't get it.

I read Dennis Lehane's Mystic River (before seeing the movie) and when I started seeing Leo as duly-appointed federal-maahshall in the Shutter Island previews I became intrigued enough to read this one, too. (I ended up having extra time because the release of the film was delayed for stupid reasons.) I really enjoyed reading the book, and I won't write any spoilers here because I do recommend it, but I literally don't know what happened at the end. I hate that! I consulted with another friend who has read it who supported me and said there was definitely ambiguity and that I am not stupid, but still, I hate it! And I remembered that another reason I'm not a mystery devotee is I hate those people who are always all "Oh, I totally figured that out so early" every single time they read one. I think I resent them. Plus, ugh, why would you want to know how things end before you get to the end? It's not as if I read the last page of a book before the first; that would be retarded. But when I do get to the end? I would like to understand it.

Well, if anyone wants to discuss the layers of mystery and ambiguity in Shutter Island, let me know. Meanwhile, I returned to my presidential bios quest, and have spent the last couple weeks plodding through Harry Ammon's James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity, which is huge and sometimes a little dull. It's a really big book. Heavy, too. I get in my weightlifting practice when I hold it. And the writing is dry, especially compared to the giant Madison tome I just read. But I can't hate on Ammon too much, or anyone who does such amazing amounts of research for these bios. It takes them like fifteen years and they sift through insane amounts of documents, all so I can read a biography of every president to see where we went wrong. Good stuff!